As quarantine restrictions persist, Filipino creatives discover new mediums to play with.
Words by Paolo Vergara
It’s another humid evening as patrons nurse rapidly warming beers. The night’s featured artists – launching their first album – are on stage for sound check, anticipation wafting through the tobacco haze.
A man who is vaguely familiar shows up. His hair greying, it takes me a full minute to realize he’s none other than Ely Buendia.
I say Hi like an old friend. He returns it. We make small talk about guitars.
He’s probably used to such encounters.
He moves on, and similar interactions occur between him and people in the crowd. The cameras aren’t trained on him: no requests for autographs, no one looking and pointing. Instead of screaming fans, casual conversations.
Removed from the mystique of the spotlight, Buendia is a fellow audience member.
It turns out one of the band members on stage is his nephew.
Saguijo, in Guijo street, Makati, despite its steady presence through the years, remains a small bar: elbows rub, sweat mixes, breaths mingle as bassists hunch themselves lest their tuning knobs scratch the walls. The “stage” is a corner where the mixer and speakers stand; it’s not elevated.
Perhaps this is a deliberate decision by its owners.
Less than ten kilometers north, a similarly-designed bar is holding another gig, for another set of emerging artists, the audience also populated by established artists here and there. Route 196 too has no formal stage.
It’s July 2019, a typical night in Metro Manila’s independent underground music scene.
At this point, music photographer Karen de la Fuente, a psychology graduate, is on the top of her music photographer career, deftly translating the energy of notes into photons. Perhaps it started as a sideline, a hobby even, but the quality of her shooting has led producers like Karpos Multimedia (Wanderland Festival) to work with her for years now.
Fast forward to today and de la Fuente is surprised – it’s been 8 years of near non-stop shooting. The pause in her work has allowed her the time to, well, take stock of time. Looking back, she describes the scene as “a small universe [where] a bunch of misfits suddenly found places to just be.”
As early as April 2020, during the second month of the Philippines’ lockdown – now noted as one of the longest in the world – a website gathering data from retrenched creatives sprang up. I Lost My Gig PH is the local version of an international series of websites gathering data on the impact of COVID-19 on industries like film, photography, events, the performing arts including music, publishing, and related fields.
As of June 2020, I Lost My Gig PH reported a net creative industry income loss of more than 200 million Pesos.
By August 2020, spaces like Today x Future, Route 196, and xx:xx – joints recognized as artist hubs – announced weeks, almost days apart that they were closing shop. Pineapple Lab, a space in Makati incubating yet-to-be-mainstream performing arts like drag, improv theater, and cross-media art (dance and painting, etc.) was another recent casualty.
Independent and mainstream art spaces play yin-and-yang, forming a dynamic push-and-pull, which ultimately leads creators and curators to question assumptions of what art is, thus helping the scene as a whole evolve.
If not for the conservativism of the National Academy of Design in the early 1900s, the Society of Independent Artists (which was then also gripped by its own form of conservativism) wouldn’t be pushed to eventually inspire the likes of Marcel Duchamp to create, er, recreate his Fountain.
The same can be said of our own independent spaces. These neighborhood bars and cafés, small bookshops, cinematheques, and parks, being spaces for people to both express and unwind, create the headspace for inspiration and cross-pollination.
As artists find their footing in navigating more mainstream spaces, many, like Ely Buendia, return to where they were fostered, perhaps to foster new ideas and fresh talent.
When recorded music digitized and became free-to-download, there were fears that musicians would lose their sources of income. Unfazed, de la Fuente shares, productions and artists found new ways to sustain themselves. The decline of record sales saw the rise of gig revenues. In the process, an unintended consequence was “the change in how listeners interacted, how they fit in the picture.”
Perhaps those near-nonexistent stages in Route and Guijo were onto something.
The physical component, the event aspect, the communal nature of aesthetic consumption was brought to the fore. The mystique of the performer, painter, and poet evolved into the audience-performer familiarity of the open mic, small-room play, intimate set, and underground gallery.
Today, amidst the pandemic, creatives face a new crisis, brought by the drastic cut in person-to-person interactions, once the lifeblood of the post-physical record scene.
With its selection of hard-to-find titles, many in Philippine languages rarely on the shelves of mainstream bookstores, Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio City has established a loyal following extending beyond provincial and regional borders.
Nestled near a spa, a hotel, and a restaurant in what used to be laborers’ quarters, the shop is literally a hole-in-the-wall, its shelves so close to each other that visitors wait their turn before browsing aisles.
This however, hasn’t dissuaded the establishment from holding their Third Monday open mics, and in between, independent film screenings and creative and advocacy talks.
Today, Mt. Cloud’s physical space is largely closed. Browsing is allowed, but only for five visitors at a time. But almost daily, couriers arrive, their destinations all around the Philippines. As nationwide shipping has become in-demand, a major effort by the store runners in the past months has been photographing each book to create a digital catalogue.
Lockdown hasn’t stopped the open mics either, now approaching their 13th year and which have come to define Mt. Cloud. The digital gatherings, which began in March this year, have taken various formats, from live Zoom meetings and Facebook streams to pre-recorded readings being uploaded on the shop’s social media accounts.
These readings were graced by the likes of Gabe Mercado, Lissa Romero-De Guia, and Jessica Zafra, with contributions by Filipinos poets from Baguio, Manila, Mindanao, USA, Vietnam and Belgium.
Leandro Reyes, who organizes independent open mics for poets, musicians, comedians, and traditional oral storytellers (itself an art form being recently revived) shares his frustrations. His Third Thursdays open mics, held across assorted venues and largely crowd-funded, shared the ethos of “stageless-ness” found in Route’s and Guijo’s music nights.
Here, not only were the stages flat, but mics were also absent. Reyes, a direct descendant of children’s book writer Severino Reyes, aimed at fostering community, lessening the pressure for shy performers and encouraging the audience’s full attention.
Even if the open mic gets digitized like Mt. Cloud’s Third Monday, Reyes laments the loss of what for its followers makes Third Thursdays home. With the decline of Third Thursdays, however, came the rise of one of Reyes’ other projects which then had less attention: Leandro and Mai, a podcast for poets inviting shy types to create and send their works.
Before lockdown was declared last March, Pineapple Lab just concluded one in a series of planned cross-genre shows. Here, a French painter and a Filipino protégé he recruited from Tondo collaborated with dancers on an experimental performance piece. Next week, another Filipino painter would have collaborated with a Japanese theater group for their take on the tea ceremony.
Andrei Pamintuan of Pineapple Lab, who also helped launch I Lost My Gig PH, recalls the early days of quarantine and the attitudes of creatives then. Looking back, he likens the experience to the stages of grief – back then, there was denial that a way of life was ending. Now, however, an acceptance has formed and with it, the resolve to carry on.
While Pineapple Lab’s physical space remains closed, Pamintuan and his team have slated a series of digitized shows for the last months of 2020. I asked how he translated the language of the stage to that of the small screen. He replied candidly that he isn’t sure how, that they’re still in the process of figuring out how to do so.
A week after that e-interview, Pineapple Lab released a poster for an upcoming show.
Meanwhile, de la Fuente’s heels are warming once again as she sets out to angle her lights and cameras to produce shows for bands like Ben&Ben, who tapped the photographer to help launch BBTV, a (remote) live jam-meets-sitcom web series.
The challenge now is twofold: to translate non-digital works for an electronic medium and continue fostering a sense of connection between artists and audience. Establishments are witnessing a transition from mediums as creatives try to recreate the delivery of their specific art forms to their audiences.
Pamintuan acknowledges the unique challenges of the pixel world: impersonality, screen burnout, and myriad distractions. At the same time, he echoes Mt. Cloud in that the reach of their productions was widened through the digital sphere, following recent shows with a UK-based group and groups from Visayas and Mindanao, relatively rare when Pineapple Lab’s main focus was its Manila neighborhood.
I started writing professionally for magazines at a time when glossies were past their heyday, where “print is dead” was the word of the day. And though physical circulation remains limited more so by quarantine, storytelling as a whole is far from dead.
Anthropologists like to delineate between space and place, where the former refers to the three-dimensional, material aspect while the latter is the meaning given by people’s cumulative interactions within a space over time.
The transition from space to place is the process by which a chair sitting in a dingy corner becomes a throne, each scratch on its upholstery bearing a story, where vandalism morphs from eyesore to marker of memory.
Are independent spaces under threat? The efforts of the teams behind Mt. Cloud, Pineapple Lab, and individuals like de la Fuente and Reyes hint at the nature of evolution: adapting amidst pressure.
There are real, irreplacable losses, like the food and beverage complement to many art spaces, but some proprietors have found new work within their establishments for former bartenders and security guards. Others, with a heavy focus on F&B, have survived through deliveries and adjusted menus.
Places like Today x Future, Route, xx:xx, the Pineapple and many, too many to be covered in one article, are presently shuttered, but perhaps we can acknowledge spaces like podcasts, e-conferences, and livestreams as potential places. The sense of place carried by patrons and proprietors alike is what drives people to find new ways to create, communicate, and commune.
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